In the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats took inspiration from a visit to a museum exhibiting artifacts, one of which is an urn with figures on its surface. The urn depicts scenes taken from ancient Greek life. Intrigued by the Urn’s beauty and the figures depicted on its sides, Keats was moved to write a poem expressing wonder, admiration, questions and criticisms. Without knowing who these figures are, what they are meant to reflect and to what purpose were they made for, the poet revels in the mystery they represent.
The Ode’s first stanza is filled with wonder and questions; the last stanza has none. Being a piece of art, the urn can speak to its viewers in whatever way it chooses to communicate. In the first stanza of the poem, the writer addresses an ancient urn and reflects on its beauty and what story it can tell. He calls the urn a “historian” possessing secret knowledge. The writer looks at one group of pictures that seem to be of men pursuing women. He wonders if it was a pursuit among lovers, a struggle between sexes, or a playful episode among the young on a beautiful day.
In the next stanza, the poet focuses on another figure on the vase. This time, it portrays a man with his lover, both lying beneath a tree while he plays his pipe. The writer declares that the pipe’s silent music is sweeter than a mortal’s music because the former lives through time. While the man and woman cannot kiss because they are frozen in time, they should not despair because their beauty and youth will forever remain. In one stanza, the poet is able to present two contrasting realities. One is that of unfilled longing through eternity, while the other speaks of unfading glory.
The ode’s third stanza reflects the poet’s general feeling of happiness for the things he observed about the couple described in the previous stanza, as well as the trees surrounding them. The poet is glad for the trees’ leaves, which will forever be green and remain attached to the branches. The poet is also happy that the man with the pipe will have his songs forever new. He is also happy that the lovers’ love will last until eternity. Here, the poet laments that mortal love is just the passing of passion.
By the time it passes, which it eventually will, there is nothing left. In the fourth stanza of the Ode, the poet turns to examine another picture. This time, it represents villagers leading a young cow, which seems to be a sacrificial offering. He imagines where they have come from and where they are headed for. The poet visualizes empty streets because the citizens have all left to witness the sacrifice. And the streets will forever remain empty for those who have left the town are frozen on their way to the sacrificial place.
For the fifth and final stanza, the poet goes back to addressing the urn. He tells the ornamental vase that while it lives and remain forever, the poet’s generation would have long passed. He ends it with the famous quote that equates beauty with truth. By doing this, the author seems to criticize and admire the urn at the same time. While the poet thinks the urn beautiful, he thinks that that is the only thing it will ever possess. This is the same manner of admiration and criticisms that the poet has vested on the characters found on the urn.